Criticism Poetry

Coleridge and Dejection

Re-reading T.S.Eliot’s the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, specifically his essay about Wordsworth and Coleridge. Here Eliot makes a memorable assessment of Coleridge.

…for a few years he (Coleridge) had been visited by the Muse (I know of no poet to whom this hackneyed metaphor is better applicable) and thenceforth was a haunted man; for anyone who has ever been visited by the Muse is thenceforth haunted.

Although Eliot distances himself from the idea of a Muse, by calling it a hackneyed metaphor, it’s easy to understand intuitively what he means. Having a more pedestrian approach, I think it more likely that he was not abandoned by a Muse, but instead possessed by exhaustion and the burnout caused by drug addiction, persistent poverty and illness.

Eliot says Dejection: an Ode is “one piece of his formal verse which in its passionate self-revelation rises almost to the level of great poetry.” This is slightly damning it with faint praise. But as I’d not read for many years, I discovered it to be heartbreakingly lovely in parts.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.

It is the ‘not my own’ which is the pin in the balloon here. I am also drawn to a passage about the wind, which shows another glimpse of Coleridge’s trademark opiatically Gothic imagination. This is a hellish vision that would not be out of place in Dante. The poem is dated 4th April 1802 but this is a nightmare Spring in which hope is absent.

Hence Viper thoughts, that could around my mind
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without

Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Make’st Devil’s yule, with worse than wintry song…

‘Tis of the rushing of a host in rout,
With groans, of trampled men with smarting wounds-
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!
But hush! There is a pause of deepest silence!
And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,
With groans and tremulous shudderings–all is over–

The poem ends with him picturing the woman he loves, and wishing gentle sleep on her, after a vision of a lost girl “Upon a lonesome wild”. All rather traumatic stuff, written long after the Muse was supposed to have packed its bags.

By Peter Kenny

I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, comedy plays, dark fiction and the odd libretto. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.

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